Wednesday, August 12, 2015

DINE: Il Palio: A Taste of Italy in Chapel Hill

Gennaro Villella former Il Palio Chef with Chef Teddy
Last Summer we took a family vacation to Italy. We traveled to many of Italy's famous cities, seeing the sites and enjoying authentic Italian food. One of my favorite destinations on our trip was the city of Siena. We happened to arrive there just at the start of the historic city's bi-annual Il Palio horse race and celebration. It was an experience I will never forget.

Flash forward to last week, we were honored to be invited to step behind the scenes and visit the kitchen of the well known, Il Palio restaurant located at the historic Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill and meet Executive Chef Teddy Diggs. Described as an award-winning Italian dining destination in Chapel Hill, NC, Il Palio is the premiere restaurant of The Siena Hotel Autograph Collection. Chef Teddy Diggs is Il Palio's new chef who's previous positions include Maestro in Washington DC and Martha's Vineyard, where he cooked for the President and First Lady. Since we had never been to Il Palio before, we were excited about the opportunity to revisit the Italian food culture experienced during last year's trip.

The restaurant is currently undergoing renovations in the kitchen as well as the dining room. The kitchen will include a wood fired grill and an open concept to encourage interaction—a staple of Italian dining. There will also be an amazing wine collection. The dining area will be open and contemporary while maintaining its traditional Italian style.

Chef Teddy welcomed us into his kitchen. As we talked, he began the process of making his amazing focaccia house bread. He showed us the simple quality ingredients either brought in from specific regions in Italy or sourcing from NC fresh ingredients. While we were there Chef Teddy had a visit from Gennaro Villella, the producer and importer of Villella Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the former chef at Il Palio!

We watched in awe as he stepped us through the bread making process which included plenty of delicious olive oil being added until it was seeping out of the bread.

“You know it’s good focaccia when your fingers are covered in olive oil when you’re done eating it.”

We sampled the focaccia right there in the kitchen and it was probably some of the best bread I've ever tasted. It was like a dessert! Chef Teddy is passionate about the art of bread making and plans to serve this fantastic bread when you sit down to dine at the restaurant. It was amazing.

Chef Teddy:
"Rosemary and sea salt focaccia: Words cannot describe! Soft, rich and saturated with extra virgin olive oil, this bread requires a 24-hour process with long and short fermentation that provides an amazing balance of air pockets and crumb. It’s decadent—almost reminiscent of dessert. We bake it fresh daily so that guests always enjoy remarkable, memorable bread service.”

As we continued to talk about the renovations to the restaurant, Chef Teddy began making one of the pasta dishes that he will be adding to the newly renovated menu. Right in front of us, he began making traditional Pici Pasta, "aglio, olio, e peperoncino" and began rolling out the thick Pici pasta noodles by hand. As we continued to talk, he cooked up the pasta using garlic, olive oil, dried hot peppers and plenty of fresh parsley, simple ingredients with powerful flavors. Quality of ingredients are the focus of all of Chef Teddy's dishes. He explained how his dishes are continually evolving. They don't follow a set recipe, but rather evolve naturally in the process, it is about the whole dish coming together as one.

Hand rolled pasta in the kitchen
Traditional Pici Pasta, "aglio, olio, e peperoncino
Chef Teddy:
"Traditional Pici Pasta, "aglio, olio, e peperoncino:” Pici is a thick, hand-rolled pasta, similar to a fat spaghetti. Originating in the province of Siena in Tuscany, it is made simply with flour and water, as historically the eggs were reserved for the wealthy. The dough is rolled out in a flat sheet, cut into strips and hand rolled into noodles that form a thick pasta, slightly thinner than a pencil. Unlike spaghetti or macaroni, this pasta is not uniform in size and has variations of thickness along its length. At Il Palio we dress this soft but chewy noodle with "aglio, olio, peperoncino," or garlic oil, and dried hot pepper. This is one of my personal favorite ways to eat pasta. Its simple preparation uses only extra virgin olive oil, a paper-thin shaving of garlic and dried Calabrian hot peppers. The garlic is slowly cooked so it dissolves into the oil. Once the added chili is infused into the oil, the pasta is tossed into the mixture. The whole dish is finished with a smattering of Italian flat leaf parsley that provides balance against the garlicky sting of the oil."

We stepped out of the kitchen into the Siena Hotel lobby and sat down with our freshly cooked pasta and continued to eat and talk. Chef Teddy is passionate about some of the new features in the renovated restaurant and the new menu. Some of these new features include:

  • The wood-fired grill: A custom-crafted grill which is one of the first in this area. This piece truly incorporates the heart and soul of real Italian cooking. It will be stoked with hard woods that will subtly evoke a rustic sense of comfort through its aroma. In addition, Il Palio is adding a new section of its menu to highlight selections from the grill, using “wood” and “smoke” as a flavor. 
  • The Re-Thought Pasta Dishes: These aren’t your average sauce-and-noodle dishes. Whether it represents a region or an ingredient, the pasta menu at Il Palio is unlike any other in our area. At Il Palio, "pasta is not about noodles and sauce, it is about the whole dish coming together as one. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
  • The crostinis (or “little toasts” in Italian): Another product of the wood-fired grill is Il Palio's house-made ciabatta bread slightly charred and smoked over wood coals. These crostinis will be topped with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and 10-12 different topping options, including traditional salt cod mantecato (whipped Venetian salt cod) luxurious chicken liver mousse, house made ricotta, and local honey and warm Dungeness crab salad. The crostini section also encourages table sharing with an interactive “small-plate” atmosphere. Interaction and relationships? A staple of Italian dining.
  • Dessert Menu: Extensive with many “must-trys”. For example, the new tiramisu and Sicilian pistachio souffle "that will change your life” (quote from chef ) .
  • Wine Collection:  Il Palio features wine from Italy’s 21 regions and vintifications produced in every corner of the Italian Peninsula, a selection that earned Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. It will be one of the largest Italian wine collections in the region.
  • Sources: Chef Teddy builds his dishes using bounty from local partners, with the exception of a few very specific items straight from Italy itself (truffles, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, etc.).
After we cleaned our pasta plates, Chef Teddy offered us some dessert. We talked about the different types of desserts that are associated with the different Italian regions, some regions leaning more sweeter while other desserts from other regions tend to be more on the savory side.

Chef Teddy disappeared into the kitchen to bring back warm olive oil and orange cake with a scoop of olive oil gelato and balsamic vinegar. In fact we were trying to take a picture as the gelato slid right off the warm cake. It was divine.

Chef Teddy:
"Warm Olive Oil and Orange Cake, extra virgin olive oil gelato, aged balsamic vinegar: Il Palio's olive oil cake is a rich but light sponge cake made with semolina flour and flavored with gran marnier and fresh orange zest. Il Palio's house extra virgin olive oil is whipped into the batter just before baking. It’s then served warm with a scoop of house-made olive oil gelato and drizzled with aged balsamico imported from Modena, Italy."

As we were wrapping up our delicious meal, Chef Teddy offered us some coffee. I decided to take him up on his offer. He brought out Affogato on a pretty plate with a scoop of vanilla gelato pouring the espresso over the gelato. Served with biscotti, it was the perfect finish to a delightful afternoon. He sources the coffee here locally from Carrboro Coffee Roasters.

Chef Teddy:
"Affogato," Carrboro Coffee Roasters espresso, vanilla gelato, biscotti: Affogato, which means "to drown" in the Sicilian dialect, is a coffee-based dessert. A scoop of vanilla gelato is submerged tableside in a double shot of Carrboro Coffee Roasters espresso. Both the espresso and gelato are thick, creamy and intense—yet balanced.

For another option, Il Palio offers this dessert with Vin Santo, the famous Tuscan after-dinner wine, poured over the gelati instead of the coffee. The house-made biscotti garnishes both of the options and is perfect for dunking into both after dinner drinks."

As we said our good byes and thank you's and ran out into the impending deluge of a NC summer storm, we were happy and content to be reacquainted with the love of authentic Italian food and drink we felt after coming back from our trip to Italy. We were thrilled to find it in Chapel Hill. We look forward to coming back for another meal when the restaurant reopens very soon in early September.

Il Palio re-opens officially September 10. There are several events lined up starting in September through December.

Photo creds and assistance go out to Matt Lynn. I also appreciate all his support.Follow him on Instagram @Matagonia.Brew

Freshly made tomato paste sourced from local NC tomatoes and cooked for hours in the oven.
Focaccia right out of the oven!

Hand rolled pasta

Fresh garlic and Italy sourced extra virgin olive oil.

Chef Teddy's Bio:
Teddy Diggs, Executive Chef of Il Palio at The Siena Hotel, arrived in Chapel Hill by way of notable culinary establishments in Martha’s Vineyard and Washington, DC.  A 2004 graduate of the CIA, Hyde Park, Chef Teddy Diggs has been distinguished as a Rising Star Chef in New England, and prepared dinner for the President and First Lady.
Early on Chef Teddy Diggs exhibited an interest in food and cooking. Teddy’s mother, making note of her grade school son’s ardent attention to Food Network, “arranged”, for him to skip school for a Mother/Son jaunt to meet his then hero, Emeril Lagasse”.  This stand out experience followed by his first job at 15, making pizzas at a local pizzaria, were likely harbingers of a destined culinary path.
Post grad CIA, Chef Teddy Diggs embraced opportunities in our nations’ capital under the tutelage of Maestro’s Star Chef Fabio Trabocchi, and Blue Ridge’s Barton Seaver, prior to being designated as Ripple’s Executive Chef.  In 2010, Chef Teddy Diggs was lured to Martha’s Vineyard where he presided over the kitchens of the renowned Art Cliff Diner, and Homeport at The Beach Plum Inn, where he cooked for the Obamas.
On his culinary journey, Chef Teddy Diggs has become a passionate advocate for sustainability in seafood practices. In confirmation, he states, “sustainable fishing includes the fishermen and their communities. Purchasing locally-caught fish not only sustains a way of life but also helps to support (read: sustain) a particular family or community”.
Chef Diggs believes, “Food should be nearby, it should always be about supporting home base.” His seasonally minded dishes  feature “restrained” preparation, allowing the carefully chosen products’ flavors to shine.  Expect a lightness and balance in taste and intensity. Chef Teddy Diggs’ recipe for gnocchi, painstakingly honed over several years, is a perfect example of his drive to deliver the best, flawless culinary experience for diners. Chef Teddy Diggs looks forward to being an integral part of the community and taking advantage of the diversity and abundance of lifestyles and cultures.

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